May 17, 2022 9:45 am

The fugitive: the rereading of Les Miserables that had the most watched episode in the history of American television

Two characters, the hunter and the hunted. The first was Lieutenant Philip Gerard (Barry Morse) and the second was Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen), the policeman was motivated by a thirst for justice, Kimble too. The premise behind The fugitive it was so simple that it seemed impossible for it to become a success. Legend has it that after finishing filming the first episode, Morse asked his partner as they walked to his car: “Do you think we’re going to have more than two weeks of work on this?” The series lasted four seasons, and became one of the most famous of all time.

In brilliant black and white, a man on a train looks out the window while smoking, and a voiceover says it all: “Name: Richard Kimble. Profession: medical doctor. Fate: gallows at the state prison. Richard Kimble is innocent, but he was found guilty. What he could not verify was that moments before discovering his wife’s body, he ran into a man fleeing from the vicinity of his house. Richard Kimble ponders his fate as he sees the world for the last time. He only sees darkness, but in that darkness fate pulls its strings.” A fortuitous accident derails the convoy giving the protagonist the opportunity to escape. From that moment on and for 120 episodes, Kimble will try to find the one-armed man responsible for his wife’s death, at the same time that he will escape over and over again from the policeman obsessed with his capture..

It is difficult to measure with modern eyes what this series meant for the audience, whose first chapter was broadcast on September 17, 1963. In itself, the idea of ​​a man convicted of a crime he did not commit, although it seems old, at the time set off more than one alarm. Roy Huggins -creator of the idea and architect of other successes such as Maverick The confidential file (The Rockford Files)- assured that it was not easy to convince the producers because the premise did not leave the American justice system very well. He knocked and knocked on doors until he got to ABC, where they were delighted with the idea, letting him develop it as he had imagined it.

The Fugitive aired between 1963 and 1967Archive

And it is that The fugitive it was a success, one would almost say proven, because his starting point connected directly with the work of Victor Hugo, The Miserables. Richard Kimble was nothing more than a modern Jean Valjean, while his pursuer bore more than one resemblance to the implacable Inspector Javert..

But it was not the only reference, because at the time the first draft of the program was written in society at the time, the case of Samuel Sheppard, a doctor who in 1954 was accused of killing his wife and who in his statement claimed that he saw someone walk away from the place that night. After a media persecution, he was sentenced to life in prison, and exonerated in 1966.

Despite the obvious similarities between fiction and reality, writer Roy Huggins consistently denied that his story had anything to do with the Sheppard case. He saw it as a modern western, and he even liked to tell his acquaintances that one night he called his wife to the marital bedroom and asked her to take a picture of him, when she asked why, the screenwriter replied: “I just had the best idea for a television series and I want to remember this moment forever.” The framed image accompanied him until the end of his days.

The fugitive, a series that left its mark on popular culture
The fugitive, a series that left its mark on popular cultureArchive

When Robert Stack (who had just finished The Untouchables) said he was not interested in the project, the producers went for David Janssen. Although the actor had plenty of experience, both in film and on television, in neither of the two formats had he managed to achieve the proper name he had with the series. But both Huggins and producer Quinn Martin liked his image of vulnerability, far from the prototype of the police protagonist of that time. Fans of the show took the trouble to record each of the predicaments Kimble suffered in his four years on the run, which turned out to be: an explosion that left him blind, four stab wounds, eight gunshot wounds, amnesia, pneumonia, a car accident car, three concussions and 30 fights. Only for that record of suffering is that it deserves to enter history.

This show of fanaticism was just one of the many that the actors received throughout the series. David Janssen used to receive many letters from prison, where prisoners asked him for help because they were going through his same predicament. Barry Morse used to pass people on the street who stopped him and said: “Leave poor Dr. Kimble alone, the real killer is a one-armed man.” Also once, being in a restaurant in London, a waiter handed him a note that said: “Kimble is in the kitchen.” And in Germany, on the occasion of Jannsen’s visit, a magazine invited its readers to follow him during his stay in Berlin.

The series generated such a furor that its protagonist had to live with constant comments from the public, who believed that he really was the unfortunate doctor Kimble
The series generated such a furor that its protagonist had to live with constant comments from the public, who believed that he really was the unfortunate doctor KimbleArchive

The artists were amused by such a level of enthusiasm in the spectators. So much so that in different interviews they even said that the true end of the program was with Kimble on a beach reading the news in the newspaper that the one-armed man had been executed. Immediately he got up and it was seen that his right arm was actually a prosthesis, implying that in reality he was always the murderer.

The final chapter of the series, broadcast in August 1967, became the most watched in the history of American television for almost two decades.
The final chapter of the series, broadcast in August 1967, became the most watched in the history of American television for almost two decades.Archive

It was not what was seen in the final double chapter, broadcast in August 1967. There the doctor finally confronts the man who murdered his wife, and when he is about to die at the top of a tower, an accurate shot from Gerard kills the criminal and ends the protagonist’s predicament. For a decade it was the most watched episode in television history, until they came Dallas and JR’s death Curiously, in our country, where the series arrived in 1964, the outcome of the story could not break the arm of local proposals, which surpassed it in audience.

With the last season in color, and a series of new ideas that did not prosper, such as adding a child to the protagonist in search of attracting a young audience, or extending the escape destinations to Hawaii, Mexico or Puerto Rico, Jannsen tired of the pace of filming said enough. With what was done, it was enough to leave the series at the top of what was known up to that moment, even affording the luxury of a final concluding chapter, which would not leave a loose end, a curiosity for the time.

However, it was not Dr. Kimble’s last career. In 1993, Harrison Ford starred alongside Tommy Lee Jones in a film remake that repeated the plot and success. And it was not a matter of nostalgic viewers, but of a plot base that had stood the test of time, and benefited from the spectacular nature of the big screen and new technologies..

In 2000, inspired more by the film than by the original, a new version of The fugitive, by Tim Daly. With nothing new to offer, the project fizzled out after just one season. Since then, The fugitive he has not been forced to flee again in search of his innocence. At least for now.

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